A Tale of Two Infrastructure Projects

Posted by Alan Mallach on April 18, 2014

Living in Central New Jersey, I’ve had a ringside seat for the last few years to one of the largest infrastructure projects currently going on in the United States, the $2.5 billion widening of the New Jersey Turnpike.

                                  (Photo by Don Harrison CC BY-NC-ND)

I’ve found the experience upsetting, not because it has interfered with my life—which it hasn’t—but because it strikes me as an almost perverse waste of a vast amount of public resources for little long term social or economic benefit. Still, I didn’t appreciate quite how perverse until a few weeks ago, when I read the following article in the Wall Street Journal, entitled “U.S.-Canada Bridge Funding at Risk”.

What is this about? The crossing over the Detroit River at Detroit is the main connection between the United States and Canada, our largest single trade partner, which the Canadian government calls “the most important international land crossing in North America.”

There is only one bridge (along with a tunnel of limited capacity) across the river, the privately-owned and more than 80 year old Ambassador Bridge. Bottlenecks are common, and it is more or less universally accepted that another, more modern, more efficient crossing would significantly increase trade between the two countries, help grow the North American economy, and in the process provide a shot in the arm for the city of Detroit. In other words, building another bridge over the Detroit River—and one that would not be subject to the whims of a private owner—would have huge economic and social benefits.

It’s not a new idea. It’s been seriously planned and studied for at least a decade, and about a year ago started to look like a reality. It wasn’t easy. Manuel Maroun, the multimillionaire owner of the Ambassador Bridge, along with a shifting collection of allies, has fought the project tooth and nail. Most recently, in 2012, he was able to get a referendum on the Michigan ballot which, if approved, would have amended the state constitution to require a statewide referendum before the bridge could move forward.

Despite spending millions on the campaign—including thinly veiled appeals to anti-Detroit and racist sentiment—his referendum failed, and the bridge was approved.

Recognizing the difficulty of getting significant resources in this political climate either from the US Congress or the Michigan Legislature, the Canadian government agreed to pay almost all of the estimated $3.65 billion cost of the bridge. The federal government was expected to pay for one small piece of it—the customs plaza on the US side of the border, estimated to cost $250 million.

That may seem like a lot of money to you, but in the context of infrastructure projects, or the federal budget, it’s chump change. For the record, that’s less than 1/100 of 1 percent of the federal budget. Now, it looks like that the federal government is saying that they don’t have the money.

I live about six miles away from Exit 8 on the turnpike, which I use regularly. I’ve been watching them turn what was once a modest set of on- and off-ramps into a spectacular array of ramps, crossovers, bridges, flyovers and Lord knows what capable of moving the entire population of Central New Jersey on and off the Turnpike simultaneously—at a cost (not including the inevitable overruns!) of $280 million (see image).

Somehow, the contrast between our government’s potentially killing an infrastructure project of major importance for the nation’s economy over a paltry $250 million—less than the cost of my new exit ramps—while the Turnpike project blithely steams onward, struck me as particularly telling.

I know that NJ Turnpike money and federal money aren’t fungible, and I know we live in a federal system where states get to decide where to put their dollars, however perverse their choices might be—even though it’s worth noting that a big chunk of the money being used to widen the Turnpike was made available when Governor Christie decided to kill the tunnel being planned for the Hudson River, a project that would have had far greater economic impact.

But just the same, I think the juxtaposition of these two stories says something important about our (lack of) priorities as a nation, and how little serious thought we’re giving to investing in our economic future. I think it also says something about how we have come to devalue the public realm in general. Who knows—perhaps Manuel Maroun is right, and we shouldn’t have a new bridge over the Detroit River. Maybe we don’t deserve it.

About the author more »

Alan Mallach, senior fellow of the National Housing Institute, is the author of many works on housing and planning, including Bringing Buildings Back and Building a Better Urban Future: New Directions for Housing Policies in Weak Market Cities. He served as director of housing and economic development for Trenton, N.J. from 1990 to 1999. He is also a fellow at the Center for Community Progress and the Brookings Institution.

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